Spider-Man Homecoming: How To Write a Great Antagonist
Hello I am Jacob Krueger and this is The Write Your Screenplay Podcast. On this podcast, rather than looking at movies in terms of “two thumbs up, two thumbs down, loved it or hated it,” we look at them in terms of what we can learn from them as screenwriters. We look at good movies and bad movies, movies that we loved and movies that we hated.
This week, we are going to be talking about Spider-Man: Homecoming which is a surprisingly successful film compared to the others in this franchise. And what is nice is that this film doesn’t just succeed based on its fabulous action sequences or the wonderful actors involved in the production. This movie also succeeds because of its script.
So, let’s talk about what makes this script so darn successful. And to do that we have to begin with a discussion about Antagonists.
How do you write a great Antagonist?
If you’ve studied screenwriting with me, you know that I don’t actually like the word Antagonist. The reason I don’t like the word Antagonist is because it suggests something that isn’t true in the universe: the idea that there is supposed to be a character in your screenplay that exists only to antagonize the main character.
Whenever I am thinking about film, I like to look at my life and think, “Okay, if it happens in my life, it can happen in a movie. And if it doesn’t happen in my life it can’t happen in a movie.”
And that doesn’t mean that my movies all have to be naturalistic films, Spider-Man: Homecoming certainly isn’t a naturalistic film in any way and it is hugely successful.
What it means is that emotionally it needs to be true– it means that what happens in the movie needs to grow out of an exaggeration of, or a reaction to, or a metaphor for, or an expression of something that is true about the universe.
Because, once we get into the world where we aren’t writing an expression of something that is true about our universe– once we are in that kind of fiction, the fiction that doesn’t come out of our life experience– it is only natural that our movies are going to ring false.
And if you’ve seen some of the other films in the Spider-Man franchise, and other big budget action movie franchise films, you can feel the effects of that untruth, when the events of the story and the reality—the emotional reality– of life stop matching up.
Despite all of its wild, high-stakes action and magic, what really makes Spider-Man: Homecoming succeed is its more grounded elements.
Even its title, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a pun that recognizes this truth on many levels.
In part it is about Peter Parker returning home after his foray with the Avengers and trying to go back to a real life.
In a nudge-nudge, wink-wink way, it’s a about a Homecoming for Spider-Man, back to his Marvel universe roots after his lonely sojourn with Sony.
But it is also a movie about the homecoming dance which is really the most important thing in Spider-Man’s real world life at this time.
It takes a lot of courage as a writer to write an action movie that is really set around a homecoming dance. It takes a lot of courage as a writer to realize that the real source of the story isn’t going to grow from the big, larger than life relationships, but from the mundane ones—the ones that look like our own lives.
So, how does this relate to Antagonists?
I don’t like the word antagonist because antagonist makes us think that there is someone whose job is to antagonize you.
And if I look at my own life, here’s the truth: there is nobody in my life whose job is to antagonize me!
There are people who I might feel exist only to antagonize me; there are people who might drive me crazy. But the truth of the matter is, if I stepped in and saw the universe through their eyes, they don’t think of themselves as the antagonist. They think of themselves as the hero.”
One of the cool things about movies and one of the cool things about life is that pretty much everybody in the world thinks that they are the hero and that other people are the bad guys.
And that means that if we want to learn to write bad guys, we need to learn to step into their shoes, and see the world through their eyes– to empathize with the people that we hate the most, the people that we don’t understand, the people that we think are horrible.
There is a wonderful moment in which Peter Parker talks about the Antagonist in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Adrian Toomes (which is so wonderfully played by Michael Keaton) as a psychopath in a Vulture costume.
But even Peter Parker is making the mistake of dismissing the real psychology of the antagonist. And when we do that, we, just like Peter Parker, lose track of what our own stories are really about.
We not only miss out on writing antagonists who are fully formed and real, we also end up losing out on the political side– the socio-political side of our story– we lose out on telling a story that actually says something about our society and our world.
If you compare Spider-Man: Homecoming to the Captain America: Civil War movie from which it’s spawned (here’s a link to my Captain America: Civil War Podcast), you can see the difference between rooting characters in real actions based on their real views of the world, and manipulating characters into fight sequences based on psychology that doesn’t really exist in the world.
So, it is important to examine how we think about antagonists. How we think about the people we might perceive as antagonists in our own lives, and how we think about the antagonists in our movies.
It is important that we remember that every antagonist thinks that he is the good guy.
If you look at Star Wars through Darth Vader’s perspective, Star Wars isn’t the story of Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy.
Star Wars is the story of a good man who lost 90% of his body trying to fight the good fight and do his job, whose only desire is to peacefully rule the galaxy with his son.
For Darth Vader, the antagonist is Obi-Wan Kenobi, this terrorist outlaw who has kidnapped his kids, corrupted them with religious indoctrination, turned them against their own father and now recruited them to the same radical terrorist rebel movement that threatens to destroy everything Darth Vader and the Emperor have built.
Do you know how much money, and time and effort it costs to build a Death Star? Do you know how many people die when you blow up a Death Star?
From Darth Vader’s perspective, he is the good guy and the rebels are the terrorists.
Just as from the rebel’s perspective they are the good guys and Darth Vader is the terrorist.
To write any character well, what we really need isn’t judgment but empathy.
And this is important when we write our good guy characters too.
If you’ve ever adapted a true-life story, or if you’ve ever spent a lot of time with a character, one of the things that starts to happen is you start to fall out of love with them.
Just like in any relationship, you start to see the bad sides of their personality, their contradictions, their mundane qualities, the things that don’t fit your vision of them.
And one of the tricks that you need to develop as a writer is learn how to step back inside of their point of view. Because, as we talked about in last week’s podcast, really all we are trying to do as writers is to see, hear and feel everything.
We’re not just trying to see, hear and feel them in our own heads but to see, hear and feel everything through the point of view of our characters. And not just our main characters, but also our secondary characters, even our tiny little characters!
We want to understand the world through their point of view.
We want to understand that in Spider-Man: Homecoming when Zendaya’s character, Michelle, is in a scene, she thinks that scene is about her!
When the nasty bully Flash is in a scene, he thinks that scene is about him. Just as Tony Stark thinks the scene is about him. Just as Happy Hogan thinks the scene is about him. Just as Marisa Tomei’s character May Parker thinks the story is about Aunt May.
Every character thinks that they are the hero!
And what that means is that every character enters the scene with a really strong desire.
So in this Spider-Man podcast, let’s start not breaking down the structure with Peter Parker. Let’s not start with the main character like we usually do when we’re building a movie.
Let’s start with the Antagonist. Let’s start with Michael Keaton. Let’s start with Adrian Toome. Let’s start with the Vulture.
Like any great character, Adrian starts the film with a really simple desire. A really clear priority. Or to use acting terms, a really clear superobjective that governs all of his actions.
There is here is only one thing Adrian Toomes wants in the universe: he wants to provide for his family.
Michael Keaton is working to clean up the mess left from the end of the Avengers movie, when all the alien weaponry was left in the wreckage of New York City. He is trying to do a good job. He is trying to build a good life for his family. He is trying to build a good life for the families of the people who work for him.
And yeah, he is a tough guy with a tough temper. But mostly, he is just a man trying to do the right thing.
Tony Stark, when he creates the Department of Damage Control, doesn’t think that he is being the bad guy. He isn’t trying to antagonize Adrian Toomes. He thinks he is being the good guy.
But, inadvertently, when Damage Control takes over the job, what happens is that Damage Control, and by extension Tony Stark, turns into the antagonist for Adrian.
What happens is suddenly, Adrian’s life is threatened, his family is threatened, and the families of the people working for him are threatened.
And what happens is Michael Keaton’s character Adrian starts to see Tony Stark as the bad guy, starts to see Tony Stark as the enemy.
Starts to tell himself he is never going to succeed. That the universe is turned against him, that the little guy can never survive—not if he plays by the rules.
And this is what leads Adrian to turn himself into a villain.
Not a desire to rule the world, not a desire to destroy the city, not an evil desire, not a mustache-twirling-villain desire, not an antagonist desire.
On a structural level, what happens is Adrian’s want to provide for his family gets interrupted, and his emotional need for justice gets interrupted. And seven years later, Adrian has reinvented himself as the Vulture.
And what is important is that he hasn’t reinvented himself as the Vulture to become a bad guy. He is telling himself the story of the Vulture as the hero.
And yes, it may be true that he has made some compromises.
Sure, maybe his work is selling dangerous weapons to dangerous people. And, sure, maybe he is stealing weapons from Damage Control.
But from his point of view he is totally justified.
After all it was Damage Control that took away his livelihood.
It was Damage Control who didn’t give a shit that he had invested everything he had– that he had bought trucks and equipment and risked the future of his family for that job. It was Damage Control whose small bureaucratic act would have be the end of his business if he hadn’t taken action.
So what is interesting is that even though Adrian Toomes’ “How” is compromised, his “What” isn’t morally compromised at all!
What he wants is Justice– just like Spider-Man.
What he wants is to provide a good life for his family, just like every parent in the world.
And what he is doing is really not that much different than what millions of Americans–millions of people around the world– do every day—working for companies that destroy the environment, working for companies that create weapons, working for companies that do things that we know are morally irresponsible if not reprehensible.
Or if not compromising our morals, compromising our dreams. Working at jobs that don’t serve our real vision, that don’t build the kind of future for our country or our world or our children that we wish we were building. Working for money, rather than for passion.
Adrian, like most of us, isn’t a bad guy; he is just a compromised guy.
A guy who is doing what he feels he has to do to survive, to provide for his family. He is just another guy saying, “Me first! I’ve got to take care of myself before I take care of other people.”
Toomes isn’t a mustache-twirling villain with his staff either. He’s much more of a protective father figure. Sure he’s got Michael Chernus’ character, who desperately wants him to pull off the biggest heist ever. But he doesn’t want to do that, he wants to fly carefully under the radar and keep everybody safe.
Sure, he does vaporize the employee who threatens to tell his wife what he really does. But even that is an accident! He isn’t trying to kill the man. He thought he was grabbing the stun gun.
Adrian, like so many people who do horrible things, isn’t trying to be horrible; he is trying to chase the American dream in a compromised world.
And that is what makes his character so much fun to play for Michael Keaton. And that is what makes his character so much fun to watch for us.
And though I won’t spoil the movie for you, those of you who have seen Spider-Man: Homecoming know that is what makes the surprise that we discover about Adrian so much fun for us as an audience.
But on an even more important level, this is what takes what would otherwise be a slight character driven action movie and gives it some real socio-political heft.
In the same way that The Breakfast Club took a slight high school comedy premise and turned it into an era defining story about the way that we perceive each other as different but are all really the same, it’s this truthful look into its antagonist’s actions that allow Spider-Man: Homecoming to say something important about our society– about the choices that we make and the people that we believe in and the way that we chase our own dreams.
And it does so without ever missing a comic beat. Without ever getting moralistic or preachy or melodramatic. It does so by being truthful.
So, you can see that, unlike the writers of most action movies, who often fall into the trap of creating these super-bad bad guys, these writers create a bad guy who lives and breathes, who grows out of real life, and who just wants something really simple—he wants to provide for his family.
And you can see, if you look at the structure of the Spider-Man: Homecoming, that this isn’t just the formula for creating a great bad guy, it is actually a way of creating an entire cast of unforgettable characters, and shaping the journeys they all go on in the film.
Stay tuned for next week’s podcast, in which I’m going to be looking at the underlying structure of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and how the same approach used to build the film’s Antagonist was used to create an entire cast of unforgettable characters, and the structure of the film itself.
I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. For a full transcript as well as our entire library of podcasts, or to learn more about studying at Jacob Krueger Studio in New York City, Live online, on one of our International Retreats or as part of our Pro-track Mentorship Program, please visit our website www.writeyourscreenplay.com.
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